Gestern war Gedenktag

It’s the time of year that we remember the war, so let’s think over the flaws with modern commemoration.

This week – the week of the 11th of November – is the time we look back on the wars of the past. And one war in particular – the Great War, the First World War, the War to End All Wars. Oh, the sad irony of British journalism.

96 years ago on yesterday, at 11/11, 11:00 the Germans, British, Americans and French(plus all the other side fighting on the Western fronts, but mostly those 4) signed the Armistice to end the fighting in Europe. The war that lasted 4 years and 4 months, killed 17 million people (10 million armed forces men, 7 million civilians) with over 20 million casualties. The war that signalled the end of horse-led warfare, chivalrous sword-wielding soldiers and an assumption that the upper classes were the natural commanders. The war that ushered in the respective ages of aerial warfare, tanks as commanders of the battlefield and the very concept of a world war.

And how do we commemorate this event? According to Wikipedia, Armistice Day (or Poppy Day, Remembrance Day or Veteran’s Day) is celebrated in the following countries: New Zealand, France, Belgium, Serbia, the British Commonwealth and the USA. I can only speak for the UK (and don’t have the time to do any research) but over here the day is sombre and military, with rows of marching bands and veterans filing down Whitehall (the street in London with the war memorials).

Image Credit Getty Images

The leaders of the 3 main UK political parties at the Cenotaph (the main war memorial in London)

And each military battalion (or group, brigade, company or whoever) lays a wreath on the memorial for those who died.

At last (after a lengthy preamble) we get to the point I was trying to make. We (the Commonwealth, the US, everyone on that list from earlier) commemorate our fallen veterans. But what about everyone else? Our veterans who returned home, traumatized and wounded. Our fallen ‘enemy’, lying in the mud of France, North Africa, Russia, unsung. The survivors of our temporary opponents, convicted by their families as war criminals. Frankly, what we do now is a load of bulls**t.

So I’ve thought of 7 ways we could commemorate our war dead. I’ve got a personal favourite, but I’ll leave it up to you to choose your own. And if you want to go start a petition to change the way we mourn the dead, go ahead. This is a thought experiment,not a call to arms.

An unfortunate choice of words.

1 – We commemorate our dead, and nothing more.

This is what most countries around the world do to commemorate their veterans from before the Second World War. We think of those who died under a British (or whoever’s) flag and wear a poppy for them. That’s it.

Now I don’t know about you,but this seems unbelievably narcissistic. Firstly, what did the enemy soldiers do that makes them any different to our lot? They were (possibly) forcibly enlisted into the military, given grossly inadequate training and equipment and sent out into a hail of bullets, bombs, shells and gas to go and shoot their fellow humans in the face. Our army was largely the same – it is impossible to identify the nation from the description I just gave.

Secondly, why are we honouring our commanding officers? The most potent example from the First World War is that of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, alias ‘The Butcher of the Somme’.

Field Marshall Douglas Haig (and accompanying moustache)

Haig was a British commander who served as one of the main commanders of the Western Front, from 1915-18. He is regarded by some as the face of class-based military incompetence – a commander who sent men into battle despite advice and evidence to the contrary. He was commander of the participating armies during the Battle of the Somme – according to Wikipedia, the battle with the second most casualties of the War. More than 310,000 men were killed and there were about 1,200,000 casualties.  Haig was the commander of the British forces during this battle. He was commander of a large proportion of the British Army for 3 years, over which the military suffered over 2 million casualties. While Haig did not die on the Front, let’s just suppose he did.

Should we mourn him?  I asked 5 different people, and all of them said no. The condition I gave was that Haig was killed in a routine trench inspection or something – nothing brave, nothing heroic, just something everyday – and happened to catch a bullet. Haig shouldn’t be commemorated, because he almost single-handedly caused the deaths of tens of thousands of men. He is guilty of murder, and should be treated as such.

2 – We commemorate all those who fought for us

This is what we do for the wars where we still have quite a few surviving veterans – Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iraq. This idea only really works if there are enough surviving soldiers to make an appearance at military processions. This concern was voiced a few years ago, when someone realised that the lack of WWI veterans would mean that it might start to fade from memory. Clearly, this won’t work for the wars of the distant past – and as more and more WWII veterans die off, it might start to become ineffective.

3 – We commemorate everyone who died, on both sides of the conflict

I’m sorry, but this simply won’t work. When it comes to WWI, we can probably pass this off. The First World War was largely a diplomatic war – more and more countries were pulled into the conflict by their treaties and agreements with each other. So we can’t really call any bad guys, as everyone was sort of a victim. But when we get to later wars – especially WWII and the wars in the Middle East in the 2000s – this tactic gets trippy.

When we consider the Second World War, we suddenly have a bad guy. World War Two was a war of ideologies, and one of the ideologies involved slaughtering millions of innocents. In the ‘War on Terror’ that the Americans waged on the Middle East in general, the people that they were (supposedly) fighting are responsible for 9/11, killing thousands of Americans. I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly not commemorating Hitler or Osama bin Laden because they died in a war.

4 – We commemorate everyone who fought on both side

To be honest, I’m only including this option because it I need to include every side in the elaborate circle of ideas. No one is going to commemorate the retired Taliban members who responsible for 9/11, or the ISIL militants once that war ends. We get the same problems as last idea, only with living people.

5 – We commemorate no one

No. There are soldiers in the past who died to keep their respective homelands safe, and they deserve to be remembered. Unless we learn the lessons of history, we are forever doomed to repeat them.

6 – We commemorate the victims who fought for us

This is where we get interesting. Of the 5 people who I asked about Haig, 2 of them hinted at this idea, but couldn’t properly quantify the idea of ‘victim’. I’ve been thinking about this for a few days, and I’ve think I’ve arrived at a conclusive definition.

First, you take the soldier you are analysing. Ask if they had ever been presented with a decision to not kill people, or to do something that would have saved lives. Then, ask if they made that decision, to save lives. If, in any of these decisions, they decided consciously to not save lives, they no longer are a victim. They are then a perpetrator.

While this idea may not be entirely kosher, it fits the facts that are presented. We want to commemorate the common soldiers who died, but not the butchering generals or suicide bombing terrorists. This description of a victim fits the facts we have been given, although there is a fatal flaw in the very idea. According to this plan, we are only commemorating the victims who died for us. So we need to add one final discrepancy.

7 – We commemorate all the victims of the war, from both sides

This is the plan that I like the most. We are commemorating the innocent soldiers of both armies, but not the commanders who killed and wounded millions. We commemorate the soldiers who thought they were doing the best, but not the militia-joining terrorists. Result.

These ideas, and the assessment of them that I’ve given, is extremely biased, and I apologize for that. Given that I’d already formulated the ideas and my opinion of them before I even started writing, it was hard not to be biased towards the ideas that I considered better.

If you’ve got an opinion on any of these commemoration ideas, or a new one yourself, leave a comment. Apologies for the atrocious German title and any mistakes made. Please don’t flame me.


5 thoughts on “Gestern war Gedenktag

  1. I assume we Canadians are included in the ‘British Commonwealth’ label… 😉
    As for ideas, I think we could best honour those ‘who made the ultimate sacrifice’ by removing the Powers That Be from power — because they rely on a steady supply of war to justify their tyrannical existence. Then, we could commemorate such a victory as a holiday for all those who had to die so that tyrants could have their way with the rest of us.
    I know.. I’m a conspiracy theorist… 😐


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